Where the World Could Explode; as the International Atomic Energy Agency Meets in Washington Today to Decide Whether North Korea Could Be Declared in Breach of UN Security Council Obligations, David Williamson Looks at the Issues Behind the Smouldering Crisis at the 38th Parallel
Byline: David Williamson
While young Poles, Latvians and Russians are today competing for internships with multinational companies, drinking Coca Cola and eating Pringles, North Korean children are still taught to venerate Karl Marx.
Many of them are also starving. Much of the population is entirely dependent on foreign food aid.
Yet though the nation is impoverished and vulnerable to natural disasters, the United States feels threatened by a land the size of the US state of Mississippi.
For the past 12 years, the prospect of North Korea becoming a nuclear power has alarmed both its neighbours and successive occupants of the White House.
The North Koreans are aware they cannot win any war with the United States, but they know that threats to deploy nuclear weapons win them the attention of the world's only remaining superpower.
Time after time, deals have been struck in which North Korea sheds light on its weapon-making capabilities in return for renewed food and energy aid.
Yet today the threat of outright war in the region has never been greater. More than two million soldiers are massed on either side of the 38th parallel which divides North and South Korea.
Tension has been slowly escalating for the past decade, ever since a move designed to warm relations backfired.
In 1991 President George Bush removed the approximately 100 tactical nuclear weapons positioned in the south. Both North and South Korea in response made a joint declaration in which the two states pledged not to test, produce, store, deploy or use nuclear weapons.
Under the terms of the agreement, the International Atomic Energy Authority was empowered to search for signs of weapons production. Shortly after arriving, the IAEA began finding evidence of discrepancies in North Korea's report of its nuclear resources.
In 1993 the government in Pyongyang stopped the weapons inspectors from visiting the Yongbyon nuclear plant where spent plutonium from reactors is suspected of being used to make warheads.
To prevent the monitors visiting, North Korea had to pull out of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty. This shocked the world and raised real fears of a conflict between the two Koreas.
The defection of a member of the North Korean army only heightened international anxiety. He confirmed the government was intent on developing the bomb and painted a picture of an unstable society plagued by hunger and military coups.
In the first month of 1994, the CIA reported that one or two nuclear weapons may have been produced.
As the year progressed, more evidence of weapon development at Yongbyon was gathered, but the North Korean government warned any sanctions would be considered an act of war. In June, a missile was test-fired in the direction of Japan.
Former American President Jimmy Carter halted the escalating tension by fixing a deal which let the inspectors back into Yongbyon; in return, the United States pledged to enter talks with North Korea. Within months, Bill Clinton's negotiating team agreed to supply fuel oil, relax trade barriers and help build light water reactors which would create far less weapons-grade plutonium. North Korea would respond by closing Yongbyon.
The deal appeared to work; North Korea once again dropped off the international radar and talk of any imminent war ceased. It was not until 1996 that tension rose once more when North Korea sent troops into the demilitarised zone which separates the state from its southern neighbour.
In 1998, North Korea proved to the world its growing military prowess by firing a missile which flew across Japan. Reports also reached the West that two million people had died in the previous year in a devastating famine. …